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Most people paid scant attention to deliberate strenuous exercise before the 1880’s. Since then the pendulum has swung from pro to con and back again.
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
McGovern and most of his fellow experts just about ruled out vigorous exercise of any type for anyone over forty. It went without saying that running was foolhardy, and the list of potentially perilous activities usually included bicycling, rowing, squash, handball, and tennis—even doubles. Warning of the dire fate in store for “those disciples of strenuosity,” Dr. Delano of Boston offered fairly typical advice. “The heart and breathing are not to be unduly juggled,” he asserted. Beware of the bicycle, which has produced “many a damaged heart and circulation.” Tennis is risky because “in the volleying much qui vive and much holding of breath is necessary. It does the heart up easily—especially in the case of the nervous temperament.” The only sport Delano wholeheartedly approved was golf. As for calisthenics, the doctor propounded his own thirty-four-movement system in How Shall I Take Exercise and Set-Up? Judging from the illustrations, for which the rather modestly muscled doctor himself posed somewhat sheepishly (“Let not the eye fall at once on the quantity of muscle. … For muscle by itself we have, as the reader must know, but scant respect”), the exercises consisted mainly of assorted grimaces.
If exercise was fraught with peril for men, it was even more so for women. Fielding Yost, who dispensed advice on exercise besides coaching football at the University of Michigan, said women should quit tennis at thirty-five. The idea of exercises to strengthen female muscles was absurd on its face. As Dr. Delano put it: “Femininity was plainly created not to have much muscle.” The permissible exercises for the ladies in their middy tops and bloomers were mild in the extreme, with a trim waist and a “graceful carriage” the primary goals. An article by a woman doctor in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1907 reflected the tone that prevailed for decades. It recommended the exercise of touching the toes (“Austrian officers, who are noted for their tapering waists, make a special point of its use”). It also said that “healthy girls”—but apparently not adult women—could hazard stationary running in the bathroom, provided they started with no more than twenty-five steps and lay down for at least five minutes immediately after.
Clearly, even healthy girls couldn’t tolerate much strain. Arthur McGovern, the gym proprietor, frowned on all strenuous competitive games for girls “as the element of excitement very easily leads to exertion injurious to the feminine physique.” In a 1915 issue of the Delineator , Dr. B. Wallace Hamilton told the harrowing tale of fifteen-year-old Emily. She went off to boarding school, where she became nervous and jumpy from playing too much basketball. Hamilton prescribed a transfer to a school where the staff appreciated the frailty of young women, and a switch to golf and croquet.
If the theory that each person has a fixed stock of vitality is accepted as valid, then the logical conclusion must be that the wisest course is no exercise at all, and that is precisely the direction in which things moved. Whereas the electric horses that became popular in the early twenties demanded at least modest effort from the user, the abdominal massage machines that came into wide use a few years later required no exertion whatever. These machines, which whipped a broad belt back and forth on the user’s stomach, supposedly stimulated the internal organs and dissolved fat, but by 1930 the American Medical Association, not always the most enlightened voice on the subject of exercise, felt compelled to state that they not only did no good but had caused some grievous injuries.
In 1925 a grim article entitled “Too Much Exercise” appeared in the Saturday Evening Post . Citing “overwhelming evidence that a great many Americans, of middle age or beyond, are exercising too much,” it warned that any man over forty “who persists in putting unnecessary strains on his heart is fixing to make the acquaintance of the undertaker.” The article ridiculed calisthenics and went on to question the safety of golf, which was just about the only sport left to doddering forty-year-olds by then. The stress and exertion of golf were vastly underrated, readers were told, and the nation’s courses were more or less littered with the corpses of players who had collapsed from the strain.
The ultimate stand against exercise was taken by Peter Steincrohn, the doctor who dismissed all such activity as “bosh.” In 1942 Steincrohn, a prolific writer on health topics, published a book that bore the alluring title You Don’t Have to Exercise and the subtitle “ Rest Begins at Forty .” It sounds like satire now, but it was dead serious. In fact, when the book came out, it was quoted approvingly by Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association .